Naomi Osaka’s decision should focus on media, not her

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Regular attendees at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium press conferences – back in the day, when these things still happened – will talk about a mysterious figure by the name of First Question Man. No one has ever found out who the FQM worked for, or even if he was a journalist. His only real talent, if you can call it that, was sitting in the front row and making sure he asked the first question, usually barking while everyone was still seated.

Why FQM did this has never been clear. It can’t be ego: I’ve never met anyone who knew their real name. Nor was it an attempt to glean some sort of privileged insight: indeed, most of his questions were in fact statements: mundane bromides beloved at press conferences around the world. “Arsene, you must be happy with the victory.” “Unai, a point seemed like a good result.” “Mikel, a tough afternoon, your thoughts.”

Naturally, it was to the FQM that my thoughts turned when world No.2 Naomi Osaka announced that she would boycott press conferences at Roland Garros in order to preserve his mental health. As a journalist who has taken on thousands of these foolish obligations and entertained many apocalyptic thoughts in the process, my first instinct was naturally to sympathize. And yet, the resounding chorus of condemnation and blind indignation suggests that there are some surprisingly strong feelings. For some, the press conference is clearly a sacred way of life. You can take our lives. But you’ll never take advantage of our ability to ask an athlete, “How did they feel about it over there today, you know?” “.

Monday evening, after being fined and threatened with deportation, Osaka has completely left the tournament. During this time, his position has been universally despised by the print media, which, as we know, has traditionally been the best person to judge standards of behavior. An “uppity princess,” wrote a newspaper columnist. Others have emphasized more soberly that for any athlete, dealing with the media is just part of the job, and that by separating from the process entirely, Osaka is setting a “dangerous precedent.”

At this point, it is worth considering exactly what this “danger” is. Around the world, the free press is already under unprecedented assaults from authoritarian governments, tech giants and online disinformation. In many countries journalists are literally killed for doing their job. Meanwhile in Paris, tennis journalists are faced with the prospect of having to construct an article entirely from their own words. One of these things is not like the others.

The real problem here, it strikes me, is not Osaka or even the overwhelming sufficiency of print media. Rather, it’s the press conference itself, which, when you think about it, is a rather odd idea, and which essentially fails in its central function. The great vanity of the press conference is that it is essentially a direct line from the athlete to the general public, that we humble scribes are just the eyes and ears of the people in the land of the gods. .

In case you haven’t noticed, it hasn’t really been true in a while. Athletes now have their own direct line to the public, and spoiler: it’s not us. As hard to believe, Osaka’s function as an artist and corporate billboard depends on playing tennis at a specific time, rather than being forced to sit in a room. windowless to explain in front of a room full of middle-aged men.

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the tournament after beating Patricia Maria Tig in the first round. Photo: Pete Kiehart / The New York Times

Thus, the modern press conference is no longer a meaningful exchange but a transaction with the lowest common denominator: a cynical and often predatory game in which the goal is to extract as much content as possible from the topic. Gossip: good. Anger: good. Arguments: good. Tears: good. Personal tragedy: good. Meanwhile, the young athlete, often still caught up in the emotions of victory or defeat, is supposed to answer the most intimate questions in the less intimate setting, in front of a panoply of strangers and supported by a piece of cardboard. sponsored.

There is a strange ritualistic quality to all of this: the same characters sitting in the same seats, the same clichés, all those millions of wasted words, the unopened bottles of mineral water. Isn’t there a better way to do this? They are not elected politicians. They are simply people who have been elevated to prominence through their hand-eye coordination and superior cardiovascular fitness. Talk to us, please! Or else!

This dynamic is only exacerbated in women’s tennis, a highly visible business that takes place not only in a predominantly white male space, but a white male space with free food. This voracious and engorged sense of entitlement often manifests itself in unusually frightening ways. Question: “I noticed that you tweeted a photo. Are you ready that if you go for a long run you can be seen as a sex symbol, since you are very good looking? “(Génie Bouchard, Wimbledon 2013.) Question:” You are a pin-up now, especially in England. Is it good? Do you like it? “(Maria Sharapova, 17, Wimbledon 2004.) And of course there are plenty of honest and curious journalists who do decent and curious things. In a way, it is which makes the chronic lack of self-awareness so utterly self-destructive. Read the play. We are not the good guys here. We are no longer in power. And one of the best athletes in the world would literally prefer to leave a Grand Slam tournament rather than having to talk to the press. Rather than scrutinize what it says about her, it might be worth asking what it says about us.

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